Best-selling author and wife of Private Eye satirist Ian, Victoria Hislop talks writing with Country Calling at the Bridport Literary Festival For anyone who yearns to write Victoria Hislop’s foray into the world of fiction is the stuff of fantasy. Inspired by her passion for Greece and in particular a visit to Spinalonga, a former leper colony, she wrote her first novel, The Island, at the age of 45.
The book became an instant hit, topping the Sunday Times best-seller list, winning her a Galaxy Newcomer of the Year award and the cash-jingling support of Richard and Judy. Commercial fiction had a new star and The Island went on to sell more than two million copies worldwide.
In the flesh Victoria Hislop is warm, funny and self-effacing.
She seems genuinely amazed by her success and refuses to describe herself as a ‘novelist’ declaring this a label more appropriate to literary grande dames such as Fay Weldon (a previous How I Write interviewee).
Though The Island was a book that people adored, Hislop believes her latest, The Thread, is easily her best work to date.
She says: “Having come to (writing) late it’s nice to be at a stage of life where I feel something is still getting better. My wrinkles may be getting worse but I’m enjoying trying to improve my writing!’
Previously a travel journalist, place is the starting point for all Hislop’s novels and in The Thread, Thessaloniki becomes a character in its own right.
The story is set against the backdrop of the two world wars and tells the tale of refugee Katerina who has fled from the invading Turkish army in Asia Minor. It is an ambitious book, setting out the ethnic mix of Thessaloniki in the turn of the 20th century – Christians, Jews and Muslims living side by side – and the population exchange that took place after Nazi occupation.
Hislop takes a left-wing stance in the book; her hero Dmitri is involved both with Communism and the Resistance.
She says: ‘I think of myself as conservative with a small c but I have taken a left wing view. Fascism is always ugly while the fundamental principle of communism which is based on an ideal to share has a lot more going for it.’
All her novels demand a great deal of research and before she starts to write she spends months reading reams of history books. She jokes that she is known as ‘the Queen of the beach read’ yet her subject matter – leprosy, war, fascism – is anything but lighthearted.
At the heart of her books is an acute observation of women and in particular the mother/daughter relationship. Hislop says this is a reflection of her close relationships with her own grandmother, mother and daughter. Her grandmother who was born in 1898 and lived with Hislop until she was 21 was an inspiration for The Thread.
‘I am much more interested in female characters because I understand their motivation.’ When in writing mode she’ll sit at her desk from 9 til 6 and often return to it in the evening. She refuses to acknowledge writer’s block saying: ‘for me if I don’t write it’s because I’m tired or I drank too much the night before but I’ll still make myself sit there.’
Much of The Thread was written on a laptop in the London Library, surrounded by a silent, creative workforce which included, amongst others, fellow author John O Farrell.
She never discusses her work in progress or even allows journalist husband Ian to read her novels until they are finished.
This third book was the first one he criticised. She says: ‘He read it without smiling and then handed it back, like a headmaster, saying the ending needed to be better.’
Though often self-depracating Hislop emanates self confidence and the satisfaction of one who knows she's chosen the right path. ‘I admire the people of 25 who can write novels but I wouldn’t have had anything to say. I’m very happy to have started later.’
The Bridport Literary Festival continues until 22 November